Sedentary Work – Summary of the Literature Review Evidence on an Emergent Work Health and Safety Issue

Safe Work Australia’s Emerging Issues Programme involves a 3-stage process to identify, prioritise and systematically consider emerging work health and safety (WHS) issues of national importance. The programme involves extensive consultation with all of Safe Work Australia’s tripartite stakeholders.

As part of this programme Safe Work Australia commissioned a team of experts to examine the most recent evidence from Australia and overseas on sedentary work, its likely consequences and potential control options. The literature review was conducted by academics from Curtin University, the Baker IDI group and the University of Queensland.

Summary: The Literature Review Evidence on an Emergent Work Health and Safety Issue

The Issue

Overall exposure to sedentary behaviour (especially prolonged, unbroken sitting time) is associated with a range of poor health outcomes, including musculoskeletal problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, some cancers and premature mortality.

The majority of these associations remain even after allowing for the impact of physical inactivity, thereby highlighting that sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity need to be considered as separate health hazards.

While most of the evidence to date relates to the health effects of overall sedentary behaviour, a high proportion of workers are exposed to prolonged sitting at work and there is a growing amount of evidence on adverse health effects associated with sedentary work.  Sedentary work may occur in both office-based occupations as well as other occupations which may have less scope for changed postures, such as call centre staff, crane operators and truck drivers.

The Report

The report considers issues related to both non-occupational sedentary behaviour and sedentary work. This summary is restricted to:

  • scope and definitions
  • how harm arises from sedentary work
  • what is considered excessive work related exposure, and
  • ways to reduce prolonged sitting at work.

Scope and definitions

Sedentary behaviour is conceptually different from ‘physical inactivity’, which is the lack of sufficient moderate/vigorous intensity physical activity. The report does not include any of the numerous public health initiatives around physical inactivity or obesity.

Sedentary behaviour can take place in transport, leisure, domestic and occupational domains, and refers to ‘any waking behaviour characterized by an energy expenditure ≤1.5 metabolic equivalent of task (METs), i.e. the energy expended for an activity while in a sitting or reclining posture’.

The role of the employer is limited to that of occupational exposure, and does not cover personal lifestyle choices or sedentary behaviour outside work.  

Main Findings

How harm arises from sedentary work

The harm associated with prolonged occupational sitting is likely due to insufficient dynamic muscle activity, insufficient energy expenditure, insufficient movement, lack ofpostural variety, and diminished gravitational resistance.

What is considered excessive work related exposure?

Occupational sitting is common among workers, with one half of workers reporting sitting often or all of the time at work. Exposure to occupational sitting occurs across different industries and occupations.

There is no clear definition of excessive occupational sitting exposure. However, sitting for longer than 30 minutes without a mini-break, and sitting all day at work (being “too busy” to take a break) are likely to be detrimental to health. To date, assessment of occupational exposure has largely been focussed on office work environments, with limited evidence for exposure or interventions in
non-office environments.

Ways to reduce prolonged sitting at work

A range of initiatives has been proposed to reduce prolonged sitting at work, including those focussed on the design of safe work systems via the work environment (physical and psychosocial), work tasks, work tools and the individual worker. Multi-component interventions targeting multiple elements of work systems appear to have been most successful.

Good job design can use substitution and breaks to minimise the harm from excessive sitting at work. Safe Work Australia recently published a handbook on the Principles of Good Work Design. It contains 10 principles which demonstrate how to achieve good design of work and work processes, which are all general in nature so they can be applied to any workplace.

Simple interventions can interrupt prolonged occupational sitting by substituting sitting with non-sedentary tasks, such as switching to work on a computer at a standing workstation, standing to read a document, having a standing or walking meeting, standing while talking on the phone, or walking to deliver a message to a colleague rather than emailing. In essence, employers and workers should aim for small and frequent changes from sitting as much as possible and less time sitting in total. 


Available evidence suggests that prolonged sitting is common in Australian workplaces. Prolonged sitting is associated with significant negative health outcomes, and is increasingly being recognised in the community as an important issue that needs attention. There have been a number of initiatives that have demonstrated some success in reducing occupational sitting exposure in some industries and occupations.

Publication Information

Topic: Work design
Type: Research reports
Industry: General
Publication Date: 18/03/2016

ISBNTitle / DownloadFile FormatFile Size
978-1-76028-589-0pdf Sedentary Work - Evidence on an Emergent Work Health and Safety Issuepdf1.37 MB
978-1-76028-590-6docx Sedentary Work - Evidence on an Emergent Work Health and Safety Issuedocx1.24 MB


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